A recent article by Claire Shaw in the UK Guardian Higher Education Network purports to lay bare how “University libraries are shaping the future of learning and research.” And although the article doesn’t claim at any level deeper than the subtitle that libraries are actually dictating how we learn, rather than vice versa, it does demonstrate how ebooks, e-learning and related developments are causing academic libraries to mutate into new forms.

It stands to reason that university libraries are going to be at the sharp end of the debate on what all libraries are for in the ebook era, when the internet itself in theory forms the ultimate library, surrounding us all like Borges’s Library of Babel. If any physical libraries are mission-critical to the needs of their supporting communities, they are. And although Shaw’s article is written very close to the architectural perspective, it stays focused on how a library is used as the prime determinant of university library design.

“Pedagogy is the driver for the changes in library design,” Ann Rossiter, director of the Society of College, National and University Libraries, says in the article: “changes to the way undergraduates are expected to study, for example, including more social spaces, more social learning and group learning.”

The Saltire Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University

Utilitarian considerations of functionality can also have an aesthetic and psychological component, though. It’s hard to imagine a server farm ever having the power of the Biblioteca Marciana, but a reading room of flickering screens might have a spectral beauty to it, more like the inside of a planetarium. Shaw cites Les Watson, former pro vice-chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, on the potential practical impact : “It is clear to me that the spaces in which we work and learn have both psychological and emotional impacts on use and also that learning is affected by our emotions and psyche so it seems feasible that better space can enhance learning performance. But there is no real evidence about what works and why so far.”

As someone who suffered with the shoddily compromised design of the Seeley Historical Library at the University of Cambridge, I know what he means. But for better or worse, he also means more than just pleasant buildings. The hidden agenda is what Watson refers to “in the era of annual national student satisfaction surveys” – good design as a competitive edge in student recruitment. Diane Job, director of library services at the University of Birmingham, also hints at this when Shaw quotes her as saying: “Our fundamental principle is putting people at the heart of the library – whereas libraries from a bygone age put the collections as the most important thing.”

Seeley Historical Library

It is university libraries being driven by undergraduate needs, as temples of learning and instruction, but not of enquiry and research: graduate fabs, extensions of the lecture room. That certainly reflects where the power and the money is now in academia. Perhaps it’s also a more insidious element in the digitally-focused shift towards information technology and learning in the cloud; rather than a loss of faith in books, a loss of faith in ideas and the intellectual inquiry of the individual mind. It’s hard to imagine the next Marx or Einstein coming out of a scale of priorities like that.